About two months ago, after another stale Saturday night of watching TV at their Brooklyn home, Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray surprised themselves.
It began with a blunt remark: “Why aren’t you loved anymore?” Mr. de Blasio, the former mayor of New York, asked, according to Ms. McCray, his wife.
It quickly moved, both said, into the kind of desperately seeking dialogue that had been needed for years but avoided until that moment: a full accounting of their relationship, what they wanted, what they didn’t get.
“You can’t fake it,” Mrs. McCray said Tuesday from their kitchen table.
“You can sense when things are dysfunctional,” Mr. de Blasio said, “and you don’t want to live like that.”
They made their decision that night.
Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray are splitting up.
They have no plans to divorce, they said, but will meet other people. They will continue to share the Park Slope townhouse where they raised their two children, now in their 20s — the vinyl-sided center of a thoroughly modern political family whose mixed-race symbolism helped send a thinly progressive long shot to City Hall.
As with much about their marriage, its strain is imbued with civic resonance, a decade after the couple became what was then the most significant and dissected biracial couple in American politics.
And as with much about their marriage, they see lessons for others even in its turmoil, both for working-class couples negotiating the challenges of growing old together and for the small subset who expose themselves to the unusual glare of public scrutiny.
“I can look back now and say, ‘Here are these inflection points where we should have said something to each other,'” Mr. de Blasio said. “And I think one of the things I should say more is: ‘Are you happy? What will make you happy? What’s missing in your life?’”
It’s easy to forget now — after two uneven terms, a disastrous 2020 presidential bid and a decade of cutting tabloid headlines alternately earned and gratuitous — just how Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray felt stepping into power.
They were visibly, viscerally distinctive, especially after 12 years of Michael R. Bloomberg — a living testament, supporters said, to the breadth and promise of New York: Black and white, short and tall, willing to dance in public. They were so affectionate at news conferences that aides sometimes waved.
During a nearly three-hour interview, during which they sporadically extended their hands and once high-fived in agreement, Mr. de Blasio, 62, and Ms. McCray, 68, were alternately wistful and optimistic, self-critical and defiant.
Rather than issuing a terse joint statement to announce what they called a tentative split — the carefully worded fate of so many political marriages before theirs — the two suggested they wanted considerably more off their chests.
They concluded — Mr. de Blasio more strongly than Ms. McCray — that their marriage would not have gotten to this point if he had never been mayor, as grateful as they said they were for the experience and as proud as they remain of a great part of his work. (“It was all this overwhelming schedule, such a series of tasks,” Mr. de Blasio said. “And that kind of took some of our soul away.”
They cited the Covid crisis — which arrived just as Mr. de Blasio said he began seeing a therapist for whom he quickly had little time — as an all-consuming external shock that stifled more exploratory discussions of what their post- -City hall will live. to look like (“It made me emotionally very needy,” he said, “and we weren’t as connected.”
Yet they also noted a change in their relationship a year earlier, they said, roughly coinciding with a presidential race that Ms. McCray viewed with deep skepticism.
“I thought it was a distraction,” she said, publicly echoing a general complaint from Mr. de Blasio’s constituents.
“Kind of true,” he said, laughing. “Point for Chirlane.”
Asked how it felt when Mr. de Blasio proceeded anyway, she allowed that she had to be supportive
“This is not one where you can break ranks,” she said. “That’s part of the difficulty of being part of a pack.”
When asked what she was looking for from this new formulation, she suggested that she might enjoy the non-glare of being with a non-public figure.
“I just want to have fun,” she said, adding, as Mr. de Blasio turned to her, “It’s not like we didn’t have fun.”
“Thank you, honey,” he said.
“There is a certain weight,” she said, “that is with being with Mr. Mayor.”
It is a resting place she knew well.
Positioning himself in 2013 as a sharp break from Mr. Bloomberg’s gilded bearing, Mr. de Blasio put Ms. McCray and their family at the center of the race. Their older child assured supporters that Mr. de Blasio was not “some boring white guy.” Their younger self (and his lush teenage afro) starred in the campaign’s viral ad.
Stories of Ms. McCray’s courtship of the candidate — when both worked for David N. Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor — only accentuated Mr. de Blasio’s persistence: Ms. McCray, who identified as a lesbian and seemed cool to his overtures , finally gave in.
They married in 1994, under a tree in Prospect Park, with two gay men officiating, before a reception with a “Super Freak” dance break and plenty of canola.
“He was very easy to fall in love with,” Ms McCray said.
After Mr. de Blasio’s victory, he was consistently criticized for elevating Ms. McCray to positions of high influence, especially when a mental health initiative she helped lead was questioned about its spending and effectiveness. He also ruminated openly about her political future, privately boosting Ms. McCray for a possible campaign for Brooklyn borough president. She has ruled out a run in 2020.
In the interview, both claimed that the nature of their municipal partnership was evident from the beginning. But Ms McCray acknowledged there was “no infrastructure” for a first lady looking for a different kind of portfolio, a nod to the burdens everyone feels in roles they might not have prepared for.
“How can you be a couple in the fullness of what you tend to think,” she said, “when you have this responsibility on your shoulders and you don’t want to add to that?”
While Mr. de Blasio said they had become so secure in their marriage that he had little reason to doubt its strength, unwelcome thoughts could creep in.
One of them, both said, involved their own parents’ difficult marriages. Another was about Mrs. McCray.
“For the guy who took a chance on a woman who was a foreign lesbian and wrote an article called ‘I Am a Lesbian,'” Mr. de Blasio said, “there was a part of me that would sometimes say, ‘Hmmm, is this like a scare bomb? ?Is this something you’ll regret later?’ So I’ve always lived with that stuff.”
In the 18 months since he left office, Mr. de Blasio has seemed at times to be acting, personally and professionally.
Last year, he looked in the mirror and didn’t feel himself.
“I never envisioned doing anything with hair color,” he said of his now strikingly dark close-crop, adding that the current shade is a bit more striking than he intended. “But I like to feel what I feel.”
More public was a short-lived congressional run that persuaded Mr. de Blasio that it was “time for me to get out of electoral politics.” (More recently, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board ordered him to pay nearly $500,000 in restitution and fines for using his security detail on presidential campaign trips.)
His current endeavors include teaching at New York University and giving paid speaking engagements in Italy, he said. Ms. McCray continued to work on mental health policy.
They are both happier now than they have been in a long time, they said, taking care to project practical warmth inside their kitchen, where Mr. de Blasio once wiped something off her face.
A few weeks after their impromptu meeting in the middle of that Saturday night of television, they exchanged text messages describing “how we felt about the moment,” Mr. de Blasio said. After that, he said, ground rules were established: “what’s great, and what’s not great, and whatever else.”
“One of the things we’re telling the world is that we don’t need to own each other,” he added.
He quoted two of Ms. McCray’s favorite phrases — “Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins” and “I never want to be stuck” — and one cherished by his brother, a Tibetan Buddhist: “Avoid attachments. “
They will continue to share the home “for the time being”, Ms McCray said. Currently, a photo of the couple in Times Square on New Year’s Eve still greets visitors who may come to include suitors.
Ms. McCray dryly asked if their phone numbers could be included in the paper.
“Can I put a picture of the gym in there?” Mr. de Blasio asked. (He added that he’s “not a believer” in online dating.)
As the conversation drew to a close, the former mayor pulled out his phone to play a song called “Mango,” saying it might best explain their feelings right now.
“I want nothing but you,” it said. “Get what you need / Even if it’s not from me.”
Mr. de Blasio hummed a bit from his chair. Mrs. McCray danced behind him, looking ahead.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” he said.